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Evil children subgenre can chill moviegoers

Evil kids: Can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em.

Well, actually, you can. Unless they kill you first.

Ever since Patty McCormack’s sickeningly sweet murderess Rhoda Penmark in “The Bad Seed” in the mid-’50s, the horror movie subgenre featuring inherently wicked children has been scaring people no matter their age.

Now along comes “Orphan,” starring Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, who would be a formidable foe for Damien from “The Omen” movies, those shiny-eyed towheads from “Village of the Damned” or glowering little Billy from “The Twilight Zone,” who controls everyone with his telepathic wishes.

Esther comes across as the near perfect child, with her politeness, painting and piano playing — until she smashes a bird’s head with a rock and forces a nun to drive off a snowy road, just for starters.

The most recent film in the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” invokes the evil-child theme as well. It features flashbacks to the childhood of young Tom Riddle, who would go on to become the dark Lord Voldemort; even when Tom was a student at Hogwarts, it was obvious to his professors that he was powerful in a potentially dangerous way.

Evil-kid movies are revered enough that they’ve received the highest form of flattery: being sent up by other movies and TV shows, including “The Simpsons.” And “Family Guy” offers up a regular character: matricidal little Stewie, who wanted to kill Lois for the longest time.

Besides their imitators, such films have their antecedents as well, Seton Hall University film professor Christopher Sharrett points out. All of them build on the “increasing disbelief in the idea of innocence,” he says.

“You see the idea in `Angels with Dirty Faces,’ the Dead End Kids, and in the postwar years, the teenpic or `juvenile delinquent’ film of the Cold War that poses the teenager as internal threat to adult values,” Sharrett explains.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, a University of Nebraska film professor who’s written about evil children in film, says the enduring appeal of demon children in horror films is the fear of the unknown.

“Children are seen as `blank slates’ to a degree, and also as essentially `unknowable,’ because they live in a world very different from the adult world, in which fantasy and reality intermingle,” he says. “Parents wonder what their children will become, and while they wish the best for them, they often feel as if they have no control over them. It is this essential lack of knowledge, and the fear that the children have a secret world which adults can’t enter, which drives our fear of childhood as a separate domain.”

Josh Heuman of Texas A&M University suggests that the movies play “on the dirty little secret that kids aren’t sweet and innocent, and the anxiety that it provokes.”

“They’re little monsters, and not necessarily in the affectionate sense,” Heuman says. “I’m thinking of my wonderful 2-year-old’s outlandish force of will, and then the `It’s a Good Life’ episode of `The Twilight Zone.’ Billy is hyperbole, but not unrealism or irony!”

Yes, even in real life, the little dickens can frighten you.

Dixon notes that Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” was the first mainstream demon child, but the trope really took off with the 1960 British science fiction film “Village of the Damned” and the sequel “Children of the Damned,” in which a mysterious force impregnates all the women villagers simultaneously.

“They simply want to dominate adults, and destroy them if they thwart their plans,” he says. “In a way, this can be seen as a reaction to the nascent rise of juvenile delinquency in the late 1950s — when American youth culture was first firmly established, along with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, as a perceived threat to then normative postwar values.”

Children were easier to control before the advent of television, which exposed them to “the secret playbook of the adult world,” says Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, citing a 1986 analysis by Joshua Meyrowitz in the book “No Sense of Place.”

Before television, society was relatively well-defined by widely shared social boundaries, Meyrowitz argued. But when TV took hold in the 1950s, one of the medium’s most profound effects was to break down those well-established boundaries.

The playbook was no longer effective.

“Orphan” screenwriter David Leslie Johnson says he loved the evil-child horror subgenre ever since he saw “The Bad Seed” — which did seem like a revelation in the mid-20th century.

“If you look at the other movies that were coming out at that time, it’s like the movie came from outer space. There was nothing out there like it.”

And it was so horrifying, that the filmmakers — forced somewhat by the Hollywood code that crime should never pay — gave it a deus ex machina ending so Rhoda doesn’t get away with murder. (In the original book and Broadway play, she does.) To further reassure the audience, they even went so far as to break down the fourth wall with the closing credits with a spanking played for laughs.

In many of these films, the father is absent or bamboozled by his precious prince or princess; it’s left to the mother to come to the slow, horrifying realization about her offspring.

Orphan” is similar: Vera Farmiga’s character — troubled by alcoholism, a miscarriage and guilt over the near death of her deaf daughter — figures out there’s something wrong with Esther. Peter Sarsgaard as the father doubts his wife because of her past unreliability and is quite taken in by his newly adopted child. (Even before its release, “Orphan” has provoked anger from adoption advocates.)

“There’s just something really primal in that mother-child relationship,” Johnson says, “so I felt like that was really the best relationship to exploit and corrupt, to take what should be the most natural bond in the world and turn them into enemies.”

Maria Pramaggiore, a professor of film studies at North Carolina State University, has an explanation. Invoking “Rosemary’s Baby,” and the “Alien” franchise, she says: “In our culture, women in films are sexual or maternal. I wish we had moved beyond this dichotomy, but I can’t say we have.”

And then, Pramaggiore says, there’s the “child as replica issue.”

“They are born having inherited things from others and yet they are their own people,” she says.

Johnson can relate to Pramaggiore’s point. The screenwriter’s wife is pregnant with their first child, and he’s reading various books to prepare. The tomes impart a sense of mortality, he says, adding:

“It’s a little bit of `Body Snatchers.’ They look somewhat like you and even act a bit like you and eventually, they come to replace you.”

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